Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Republican Party's 'Reagan problem'

You are probably aware that the Republican National Committee has selected Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, as its new chairman, the first African-American to hold that post. Arguably, part of his job description will be to attract fellow blacks to the party.

If that's their goal, they're wasting their time -- because the GOP's problem is that it got to where it was by alienating black voters. Specifically, its heart and soul, even though he is now dead, is keeping blacks out because, thanks to its notorious "Southern strategy," the right-wing policies it supported and he championed have done nothing but turn blacks against it.

"He," of course, is the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who is still revered in the Republican Party and the conservative movement but absolutely hated in the African-American community. Bet you didn't know that last fact. That's the problem, because conservatives don't even talk to black activists and leaders -- they simply want to neutralize, denigrate or destroy them.

And Reagan, as much as any political figure, was responsible for that polarization. Consider these facts:

-- Reagan ignored the civil-rights movement and, upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and while governor of California, was quoted in a Boston Globe editorial as calling the movement “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break,” never mind that King broke the law only reluctantly when all other options were exhausted.

-- During his 1976 campaign for president, Reagan constantly referred to "welfare queens driving Cadillacs," his audience knowing full well whom he was referring to -- blacks.

-- Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were found murdered 16 years previously, and announced that he favored "states rights" -- indicating to white racists, "I'm on your side."

-- During that same campaign, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia endorsed Reagan, saying that "the Republican campaign could have been written by a Klansman."

-- When in office, Reagan cut government programs for college grants and job training -- cuts that disproportionately hurt African Americans. (We often forget that demonstrations in major cities resulted.) As a result, the poverty rate actually went up.

-- Reagan, through his attorney general William French Smith, tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act because it "discriminated against the South." (Never mind that's where the problems were.)

-- Reagan appointed Clarence Thomas to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- ostensibly to weaken it by changing the rules to favor the employer over the employee.

-- Reagan, using the excuse of the Cold War, consistently opposed sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime and substituted an ineffective policy of "constructive engagement."

-- Even as he signed the legislation establishing King's birthday as a national holiday, Reagan replied to his political ally Jesse Helms, who voted against it on the grounds that King was a Communist, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”, referring to FBI files supposedly "proving" his Communist activity -- indicating that he believed that nonsense.

Amazingly, Reagan won 14 percent of the black vote in 1980s. (He wouldn't get that today, for sure.)

Anyway, an op-ed published upon his death in the New Pittsburgh Courier was titled "Reagan made racism respectable." I don't think Reagan was himself a racist -- you have to care to be a racist and Reagan didn't -- but I have no doubt that he, more than anyone, caused the GOP to maintain racist strategies to remain in power.

However, that has come back to bite them. In late 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, while attending a 100th birthday party for fellow Sen. Strom Thurmond, said that had Thurmond, who had run for president in 1948 as a "Dixiecrat," won, "we wouldn't have had all these problems" -- an oblique reference to desegregation. That remark cost him his leadership post (but only temporarily and only when other conservatives went ballistic first).

Don't think, however, this is merely about racist attitudes. As I mentioned, conservatives, thanks in large part to Reagan, have pursued policies that turned blacks against them, a situation they don't intend to face. They made a big stink about Sen. Robert Byrd's inadvertent use of the "N-word" and his former Klan membership, ignoring that he has changed his views in that time -- even voting for the King holiday -- and apologized immediately for that slur. (Byrd, of course, is a Democrat and was thus labeled a hypocritical "liberal.")

And even in the few times when the Republican Party ran black candidates they didn't get much support, from blacks or anyone else. Steele himself was badly beaten while running in 2006 for the U.S. Senate, as did Ken Blackwell in Ohio and former Steelers receiver Lynn Swann here in Pennsylvania when they sought to become governors. The GOP electorate's general disdain for blacks has come to a point where some black Republicans -- most notably commentator Armstrong Williams and former Tulsa congressman J.C. Watts -- said during last year's campaign they were considering voting for Barack Obama for president.

Bottom line, the Republican Party, if it's serious about attracting black voters, will need to repudiate much of its platform. But to do that it will also need to repudiate Reagan as well -- and I don't see that happening.

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